Sunday, January 18, 2009

Turnip or Rutabaga?

Pop quiz, veggie heads. Rutabaga or turnip? Which is which in the above photo?

tick tock

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Decided? The bigger one is a rutabaga (right) and the smaller guys are turnips (left). If you correctly identified these specimens, then advance to Veggie Challenge #2: the radicchio vs. escarole blind taste test. According to Mark Bittman in his encyclopedic How to Cook Everything, an incredibly useful recipe resource that will save you hours of Internet filtering: "If you can tell the difference with your eyes closed between radicchio (seven dollars per pound) and escarole (fifty-nine cents a pound), you deserve a Julia Child award for Most Sophisticated Palate."

Incidentally, Bittman has a new book out called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which picks up the gauntlet that Michael Pollan threw down with The Omnivore's Dilemma (changed my life) and In Defense of Food (preaching to the choir for me at this point but still good) by combining the discussion of our bloated food system with practical guidelines and recipes for how to eat more sustainably and healthfully without fetishizing your food objects and spending your whole paycheck on two ears of corn and a lamb sausage. This book review by Laura Miller at is worth reading not only for its use of the bizarrely intriguing term "snow jobs" (applied to diet books) but also for the way it aptly characterizes Bittman as a kind of everyman's foodie, the Joe Sixpack love child of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, one might say.

Returning to the veggies at hand, if you failed the quiz, get yourself to your next farmers' market or produce-heavy grocery store and examine the rutabagas side-by-side with the turnips. They aren't too different, but these root vegetables do belong to slightly different species, Brassica rapus (turnip) and Brassica napus (rutabaga). Turnips come in both Japanese and French varieties, the former round, white, and cute, the latter, purple-tinged and with a more tapered end (the ones pictured here) and are available pretty much all year. Rutabagas, on the other hand, hit their stride in the winter months, becoming sweeter in colder weather, and are generally deep purple and yellowish with rougher skin and tougher "meat" than the more delicate turnip. I'd put my money on the rutabaga in a street brawl.

Provenance gets a little more colorful with the rutabaga, which is thought to be a cabbage-turnip love child——there's a possible analogous loop back to Bittman somewhere in there but I'm in no mood to dig for it at the moment——originating in 17th-century Bohemia. After that, this starchy staple gets associated with Sweden, nicknamed "swede" in Commonwealth nations, while "rutabaga" derives from the Swedish "rotabagge," meaning "root ram." Yes, root ram. It did just get better. Lest I overwhelm you with excitement, rutabagas/swedes/root rams are also known as "snaggers" in northeast England. How did I get so knowledgeable? By surfing here and here.

If you're wondering how to cook these earthy creatures, let the potato be your guide. I would roast them sliced up, maybe peeled, tossed with salt and olive oil, at 375°F for about 30-40 min. until browned around the edges and soft in the middle, or I would simmer them in a soup. Below, I made a gratin with one layer each of turnips, potatoes, and rutabagas. I had the rutabaga layer on top, but next time I would make it the bottom because it's tougher than the other two and so less inviting as the first bite into your mouth.

Turnip, Rutabaga, Potato Gratin (inspired by the recipe from Chez Panisse Vegetables)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Get together a handful each of turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes, enough to make one or two layers each in a 9-in. round or 9x12-in. baking dish. Wash and peel if you don't like skins or they're too scaly. Then slice turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes into thin, 1/4-in. rounds, and layer them in the dish as below. Season each layer with salt and pepper.
Pour a mixture of half cream (or milk) and half chicken stock (about 2 cups, but varies depending on the size of your dish) to just cover the rounds. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes. If you have some parmesan or gruyere lying around, grate some over the top to bake for the last 5-7 minutes.

I must confess that my final product in this instance came out a little funky, since I ran out of milk and got all MacGyvered out by using sour cream swirled with salted water. I also ran out of patience and energy while slicing the larger rutabaga, which ended up in savagely chopped, irregular blob shapes. I trust that yours will be much more pleasing.

Note: This post was inspired by a debate I had with an always friendly and gracious cashier at Bi-Rite over whether my purchase was a rutabaga or turnip (I was right; it was a rutabaga, though I was helped by the signage when I picked it out). Bi-Rite Market is a neighborhood grocery store in San Francisco's Mission district that specializes in organic and local products and that I usually denounce for its high prices, though its local produce is actually surprisingly affordable. Also, they're always super nice when I ask really specific and probably annoying questions about cuts of pork or call up and have them check on exactly what kind of beets are in stock and at what price.


Helena Handbasket said...

I love rutabagas! But my family in Wisconsin always called them turnips, sometimes "yellow turnips" to distinguish them from the white variety.

There is an annual rutabaga festival somewhere in Wisconsin--can't remember the name. I'd love to go sometime.

katrina d. said...

That's funny, "yellow turnip" is the only rutabaga pseudonym I came across that I didn't include in the post. I realized it only after deciding not to edit any further (for my own sanity)... Thanks for the addition! I wonder if the Wisconsinites melt cheese on their rutabaga...

Conor said...

Hi Katrina! Common Irish rutabaga pseudonyms include:
Spanish Frumps
Wombat Enigmas
O'Reilly's Grenades
and, in certain parts of County Kerry, O'Leary's Lozenges

katrina d. said...

You liar! Don't tease me like that. I'm having vegetable ecstasy overload. I can't decide whether Spanish Frumps or Wombat Enigmas are my favorite.

Conor said...

it's all true! Spanish Frumps are highly valued back home, as they are said to cure bad-temperedness in livestock, and are the base ingredient for a form of homemade cocaine known as "the Letterkenny lash".

Helena Handbasket said...

Conor, Churchill famously said that the British navy was founded on "rum, sodomy and the lash," a phrase that the Pogues later borrowed for an album. Do you think Churchill and/or the Pogues were actually referring to rutabagas?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's well established that sodomy in the British Navy was primarily accomplished with rutabagas. Surely that was Churchill's reference.

Daniel Lowen said...

Just found this post -- I like! One more turnip/rutabaga difference I just learned the hard way: Although rutabagas are wonderful raw, turnips are NOT.

kale daikon said...

Wow, thanks Daniel. I never realized that. Will do a raw taste test next time I get a rutabaga and turnip in the room together

Anonymous said...

My daughter belongs to a vegetable cooperative. Because of this, she is great at identifying veggies. Turnips sold out at my grocery store so I asked her to pick me up a turnip. Last night, as we reviewed all of veggies for thanksgiving dinner, she showed me this purple and white vegetable. I asked what it was and she said a turnip. Naturally, I went to the supermarket to buy a "real" turnip to find out that it is a rutabaga. My Scotch grandmother must be ready to come back from the grave about this. Happy thanksgiving to everyone!

Carole O., Florida said...

Here in the "Deep South" we peel the rutabaga, cut into quarter sized pieces, cover with water and cook over medium heat with a little salt and a slice of bacon until tender - (just as a similar sized potato slice would be tender). Drain and use a potato masher to make them the consistency of mashed potatoes. Very tasty!!!!

Anonymous said...

My Irish Gran would cook rutabaga in chicken stock with a cored and peeled apple. Once the veg was tender, she would drain and mash with milk and Irish butter. It was always a favorite and we make it for all of the winter holidays and even the kids like it!

Heather Westhaver said...

Next time you do that, try mashing them up with carrots. Rutabega and carrots mashed together with butter is the best!

Heather Westhaver said...

Next time you're mashing rutabagas. Try boiling them with carrots and mashing them together. The combo served with butter is delicious!